Out of the ashes of World War II, the United Nations (UN) was founded in 1945 to maintain global peace, rights and security. In the 70 years since its founding, the UN has helped institutionalize human rights across the world, assisted millions of refugees fleeing persecution and built agreements to address emergent global challenges like climate change.
These successes are grounds for hope, not complacency. Today, the risks to international peace and security have also transformed and our international systems are faced with interconnected and increasingly prolonged periods of challenge and volatility, including from climate impacts.
Peace building efforts are unraveling where communities compete for access to climate stressed food and water supply. People are migrating from resource depressed climates in search of stability and challenging the UN’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid at scale. And amidst multiple crises, the capacity to prioritize fundamental pillars of UN governance such as human rights and international law is thinly spread.
The UN has consistently reformed to keep pace with global change, creating new institutions to improve oversight, responding to challenges and accommodating new global threats, such as that posed by human induced climate change, by establishing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992.
However, by 2015 climate impacts were not a future threat but a contemporary reality presenting an existential future threat if not reduced. During 2015 three agreements came together to mark a turning point in the fight to tackle climate change. Firstly, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction offered a toolkit for reducing the risks of extreme weather events. Secondly, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) formed the 2030 Agenda explicitly recognizing that there is no sustainable development without addressing climate change. And finally the Paris Climate Agreement kicked off an iterative process to build climate resilience and achieve net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the second half of the century.
Today the UN system has a choice to make. It can either implement the 2015 agreements or face the impacts of worsening crises which will eventually inhibit the UN from fulfilling its core mission to maintain peace, rights and security.
As the race for the new Secretary General gets underway, the former UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres has joined the race to become the new UN Secretary General. Whoever becomes the new UNSG, they must radically reform the UN to make it fit for purpose in a climate changed world or see its core mission undermined.
A thorough approach to climate risk will help improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable, and reduce the risk of globally fragility. These reforms will need strong prioritization from the new UN Secretary General.